Curtis Coulter: The Story Of The Unknown Hobo Buried At McDonald Farm Cemetery

  • Saturday, November 18, 2023
  • Curtis Coulter
The McDonald Cemetery in the Coulterville section of Sale Creek where the Unknown Hobo is buried
The McDonald Cemetery in the Coulterville section of Sale Creek where the Unknown Hobo is buried

This past weekend, I had the honor, privilege, and pleasure to conduct tours of the McDonald Farmhouse in the Coulterville section of Sale Creek for the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Department (in connection with the Hamilton County Fair).

In that role, I gave a brief history of the McDonald Farm from its founding by James McDonald in 1821 through the construction of the McDonald house in 1884, and until its sale to Hamilton County on December 21, 2021, for a price of $16.5 million.

I considered it an honor and a privilege to perform that role and duty. One of the greatest moments personally was when a young girl about nine or ten years of age walked up to me and asked if anyone had ever died in the McDonald House.

At the time there were about a dozen adults and a couple of other children standing in front of me waiting to be taken inside the house. I asked for their attention and said that this young lady just asked me if anyone had ever died inside the McDonald House, and then I related the following story that describes the type of people who inhabited the McDonald House for nearly 200 years. It was also, as I understand it, one of that family’s favorite stories as well and involved a lonely old hobo.

Hobos, for those young people who never saw one of these strange phenomena, were men who rode the rails in box cars to exciting places, romantically speaking. They were also frequently known as kings of the road.

In actuality, they were usually men who were down on their luck, drifters, or thrill seekers who loved the life around the railroads. They caught rides on trains and rode all over the United States. When they were out of money, they begged for meals or possibly even stole a few chickens or ears of corn for their supper. Sometimes they performed a few odd jobs to make a few cents to buy a meal or a bottle of “who-shot-John" white-lightning. Then, it was time to hit the rails again, and they were gone out of town on the next slow freight.

One cold, winter day in the late 1800s, an old hobo got off the train at the Coulterville depot about three-quarter miles south of the McDonald farmhouse. His hands and feet were frozen from the cold ride in the railcar. Additionally, he was very sick and completely unable to care for himself.

When news of this sick hobo reached the McDonald's home, they immediately sent a wagon to pick him up and bring him to their home. There he was fed and cared for by the McDonald family. They cleaned him up and placed him in a warm bed in one of the family bedrooms. Their efforts continued for a few days as they fed him and attempted to nurse him back to health.

During all that time, they tried to get the man to give them his name, where he lived, or any of his family's names so that they could notify his next of kin concerning his serious condition. The man refused to divulge any information. Tragically, in the span of only a couple of days, this lonesome hobo died there in the McDonald's home on Coulterville Road.

No one else in the world knew that the old man had passed, only the McDonalds of Coulterville, Tn. No family member was there to care for him or to shed a tear of mourning over the passing of this soul into eternity. No friends were present to say nice things about him. No one, that is, except the McDonalds.

This Unknown Hobo as they called him was given a Christian burial in the McDonald family cemetery because they cared about people and could not stand to see this poor hobo enter eternity without someone's notice or a few tears being shed for him. His grave is not far from the railroad that he loved and is one of several graves in that cemetery that is marked simply by a trademark of the community in which he died, a large SaIe Creek sandstone that was placed over him by the McDonald family that cared for him in his final days on earth.

So, the thing that makes the McDonald House great is not just the structure itself and its storied past – it is the family that called it home and blessed it with their presence from 1821 to 2021. When the sale was completed that transferred the ownership of the farm from the McDonald family to Hamilton County, someone checked the time on the clock when the last signature was recorded. The time was 12:21 PM on 12/21/2021. Quite a coincidence in itself.

I hope the little girl and the other people in the group enjoyed that story as much as the storyteller enjoyed telling it and knowing about it.

* * *

Source: "The McDonald Farm – 1821 – 1983" by the McDonald Family and the Chattanooga News-Free Press. Also, "A Sentimental Journey Down Country Roads – Stories of Sale Creek, Tennessee" (1990) by Curtis N. Coulter. That book and others by Curtis N. Coulter are available on website.

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